Conte

Archived Posts from this Category

Redeem the promise at Great Falls

Posted by on 16 Nov 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, bald eagle, canal shad, Captain William Turner, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River Refuge, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte, Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, Daily Hampshire Gazette, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FERC license, FERC licensing process, Greenfield Recorder, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Relicensing, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, The Recorder, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Yankee, wildlife refuge

The following piece, with edits, appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and The Recorder on November 12, 2015 as: “Federal wildlife service must preserve the promise at Great Falls,” and “River restoration retreat”

The US Fish & Wildlife Service’s recent abandonment of their flagship Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center at Turners Falls defies all logic. In August they abruptly withdrew their on-site interpreter and funding for The Great Falls Discover Center. That center was located above the falls two decades back precisely because of the site’s importance as an ecological refuge—perched at a river crossroads critical to the success of their new “watershed-based” refuge.

Back then bald eagles had just returned to Turners Falls; it was once again the place that hundreds of thousands of migrating American shad surged to each spring. And just downstream was the sole natural site where the only federally-endangered migratory fish in the watershed–the ancient Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, attempted to spawn each May. Known as the Rock Dam, its an ancient geological formation that remains a premiere retreat for spring shad anglers. For its biological and historic importance alone, Rock Dam should have long ago been offered the Refuge’s first “in-river” sanctuary designation.

Yet today, USFWS seems ready to walk away from its core mission and long history on the river at Turners Falls. Doing so would be no less an historic retreat than that of Captain Turner and his battalion after their pre-dawn attack on hundreds of Native American women, children and old men seeking refuge at that very site nearly 340 years ago. On May 19, 1676–having accomplished their grizzly goal with the loss of just one man, they were sent in reeling retreat when the first counter-attacking Native warriors arrived from a downstream island encampment opposite today’s Rock Dam. They’d been stationed there to intercept the teeming May shad runs to help feed their people. Turner and 37 of his troops died in the ensuing rout.

Today, Turners Falls remains the site of the US Fish & Wildlife’s biggest regional blunder in a mission to protect a nation’s fish and wildlife resources on New England’s Great River. In the late 1970s they signed off on the plan resulting in a series of fish ladders being built there. It forced all migratory fish out of the river and into the Turners Falls Power Canal. That resulted in a half century of failed fisheries and habitat restoration—largely drawing the curtain down on a spring ocean-connection for riverine habitats in Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts. That 1967 USFWS/four-state migratory fisheries restoration compact for the Connecticut River still founders at Turners Falls today.

That is why the recent USFW’s retreat from their ecologically and historically unique flagship perch remains inexplicable. Currently federal hydro-relicensing studies of dam and canal operations at Turners Falls are taking place. Their outcomes will determine environmental conditions governing the Connecticut River in this reach for two generations to come. The USFWS is playing a key role in these studies as the lead agency empowered to define and require changes at Turners respecting the protection and restoration of the public’s federal-trust and federally-endangered fish species there. In short, they’re at a crossroads. They are the key player able to restore past mistakes and make the Conte Connecticut River Watershed National Fish and Wildlife Refuge a true refuge for annual migrants passing from Connecticut to Massachusetts; then Vermont and New Hampshire.

That long-awaited success would occur at the doorstep of the Great Falls Discovery Center–replete with its life-sized displays of watershed fish and wildlife, and its accessible public auditorium. It’s a huge opportunity at a site virtually on the river, easily reachable by visitors from a broad swath of southern New England travelling the I-91/Route 2 Corridor. Great Falls is the only brick and mortar place for the public to regularly interact with USFW staff and a diversity of displays of characterizing watershed habitats for 80 miles in any direction. What’s more it’s the only publicly-funded flagship Refuge site where admission is free.

Without a touchstone site in this populous reach of the watershed, most citizens will remain unaware of the restoration and conservation work of the USFWS. They’ll be left to surmise instead that Conte is more a theoretical Refuge—a concept and an amorphous jumble of disparate parts lacking any true core.

In practice and in theory, Turners Falls and the Discovery Center site represent the best of opportunities for the US Fish & Wildlife Service to succeed in their core missions of conservation, restoration, public access and education. A second retreat at Turners Falls would be an historic failure. This fabulously rich reach of the Connecticut is uniquely situated to showcase the Service’s long-awaited success in river restoration on the public’s behalf. Many mistakes could be redeemed with the right decisions at this time. Don’t abandon the Great River at the Great Falls.

Public comments are being accepted through November 13th on the USFWS’s plans for Conte Refuge priorities for the next 15 years at: www.fws.gov/refuge/silvio_o_conte/

Karl Meyer
Greenfield

Bald eagles; canal shad and anglers up-close; fishy fishway windows

Posted by on 23 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, bald eagle, canal shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, fishway windows, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, power canal studies, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, USFWS, Vermont

May 23, 2015. Turners Falls, MA. The test flows at Turners Falls Dam are now tamped down to 2,500 cubic feet per second. Thus anglers had given up fishing the riverbed below the dam yesterday(Friday) morning. However, the head gates beside the dam were open, releasing water at a good clip to course down the Turners Falls Power Canal. With little flow moving fish upstream in the actual river, it is commonly accepted knowledge that this forces fish to default to where they will find stronger upstream current to attract them. In this case that means a place 2-1/2 miles back downstream in the Dead Reach–the terminus of the canal at Cabot Station, where the power company dumps the river back into… the river. Thus, the canal becomes the impoverished, default habitat for migratory fish, attracted via privately- controlled flows that can be manipulated by dam operators. Thus, on Friday, just down from those head gates was the place where a few anglers gathered to fish the canal–just down the paved path to the low bridge behind the Great Falls Discovery Center.
P1000416
These gents were fishing shad that are part of the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s 1967 fisheries restoration mandate to move migratory fish upstream into New Hampshire and Vermont–to create a source of “seafood” for the public. These American shad, in Latin Alosa sapidissima–or “most delicious herring” were going to be eaten.
P1000417
With the main attraction flow coming from the downstream end of the power canal, it was primarily company flow through that conduit that was affecting upstream fish movements. Friday morning that flow was facilitating good numbers of fish in the viewing windows at Turners Falls Dam. The public’s fish and river should never be left in the private control of a corporation. That situation has resulted in the Black Hole of fish passage all these decades: the fish never reach Vermont and New Hampshire, and no one knows their fate after all upstream migrants are forced to enter the Turners Falls Power Canal.
A mile and a half downstream, there were two other potential anglers–perched in a cottonwood above the partially-flowing Connecticut’s riverbed. At just 2,500 cfs, they may have been licking their lips over fish that were confused or slowed and turning back in the river due to the withering upstream current. Slowed or stalled fish make for good eagle forage.
P1000425
Another half mile on down the river fishermen at The Rock Dam Pool were also happy to try and take advantage of a slowed or confused migration at this ancient site. Looking down from the rock ledge at the head of the pool, shad could be seen streaming through the water just 10 feet out. They moved by in tens and fives and dozens, but there was no way to discover whether they were milling through the edges of that frothy pool and simply returning to be seen again in an endless circling, or whether they were trying to shoot through one of the upstream notches in flows that were diminished by reductions at the dam.P1000433P1000432
Lastly, on “Migratory” Way, just down the canal past the USGS Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, a crew of Conte fisheries people were inside FirstLight’s gates at the Cabot Hydro Station on the canal. USGS and the power company owners of the canal have been very close friends for decades now. Lab staff have worked for years on endless canal studies subsidized by Northeast Utilities, then NGS, and–of late, GDF-Suez FirstLight. Funny, though USGS holds the only National Marine Fisheries Service permit to study federally endangered shortnose sturgeon right here on the Connecticut, no study or tagging of sturgeon was done at all this year at their only documented natural spawning site–the Rock Dam Pool, just yards away from Conte Lab. And this, in a critical year of FEDERAL RE-LICENSING STUDIES.
P1000442
The folks in this picture are likely doing studies on migrating American eels. Power companies tend not to mind this type of work–as eels are difficult to study, they don’t spawn in the Connecticut River and thus are not an angler concern, and putting in “eelways”–which are wonderfully inexpensive, is a dirt cheap way to look “environmental” in the marketplace. Just as USGS Conte staff did endless canal studies with corporate study cash for decades on the TF Canal, they may be embarking on yet another cozy partnership, where years of data collection can be corporately subsidized, while true flows and fish passage upstream in the broken Connecticut River ecosystem through the Dead Reach here–and north past the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, gets ignored.
P1000438
The Turners Falls Power Canal’s emergency spillway chute and a portion of its failed fishway are pictured here, with a bit of Cabot Power Station in the background.

Spawning run ride from to Vernon; back to Turners Falls, Rock Dam and Cabot: May 17, 2015

Posted by on 17 May 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Bellows Falls, Cabot Station, Connecticut River, Conte, Dead Reach, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC license, FirstLight, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, power canal studies, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, sea lamprey, shad, shad fishing, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

P1000388
The Headgates at Turners Falls Dam sending flow into the power canal were as quiet as I’ve ever seen them this Sunday. There seemed to just be a bit of attraction water for fish looking to get upstream, but no usual frothing rip that is usual with power generation.
P1000401
Downstream at the end of the power canal there was a nearly lake-like stillness as Cabot hydro station seemed to be producing little power.
P1000407
Looking upstream at Cabot hydro station from the bridge at Montague City, there was just a small run of whitewater coming down the spillway at Cabot. Data about these flow manipulations should be available for investigations and study results for the re-licensing
inquiries currently taking place under Federal Energy Regulatory Commission purview. They have significant impacts on fish passage.
P1000395
Three of the lucky anglers fishing Rock Dam today–two are in the boat in background.
P1000397
Rock Dam rocking with anglers and 6,300 cfs of flow.
P1000398
Letting a Rock Dam shad off the hook.

LASTLY, here’s today’s full POST:

Spawning run ride from to Vernon; back to Turners Fall, Rock Dam and Cabot: May 17, 2015

After cycling up Rt. 5 to Brattleboro early today, I headed south along the Connecticut. I was shocked to actually find the gates to Vernon Fishway OPEN! This is something that should be guaranteed to the public—regular, posted hours where the public can view their fish. Let John Rangonese of TransCanada know. There is always at least one pickup parked at the Vernon hydro station, all that’s needed is someone to walk over and open the gate; then close it upon leaving. Self-serve site, no cost involved. Public’s fish; public’s river.

Anyway, in the riot of effervescing current in the Vernon Fishway windows today were literally streams of American shad. They were running upstream like there was romance in the offing. Here, like at Holyoke, fish come directly upriver to the base of the dam. There, attracted by flows released down the short fish ladder at this modest falls, shad quickly find their way past the dam toward Brattleboro, Putney, Bellows Falls, and Walpole, NH. Today they were passing in pods at around 10:00 a.m. There were also a couple of smallmouths lower in the current, as well as one ropey sea lamprey flashing through the bubbles.
P1000387
USFWS tank truck used to transport tagged shad

Here, also, I ran into Steve Leach and his crew, from Normandeau Associates. Using the borrowed US Fish & Wildlife Service tank truck, they were preparing to tag fish and truck them a-ways upstream for fish passage studies connected to TransCanada’s hydro relicensing at Vernon, Bellows Falls, and Wilder. They’d done some previous tagging at Holyoke as well. We chatted a bit about test flows downstream, and the lack of rainfall, and the river’s temperature profile that is rising a bit early. I bid them luck, noting a few anglers fishing below Vernon Fishway—along with a perched bald eagle and a circling osprey.

After stopping to visit friends in Gill, MA, I was on the Turners Falls Bridge just a few minutes after noon. The test flow current is at 6,300 cfs (cubic feet per second) today, and the Connecticut is alive with frothy water across the wide, curving expanse formerly known as Peskeomscut. I look down at four people fishing the quick current along the Spillway Fish Ladder, just downstream of the bascule gate that’s pouring down current. In ten minutes time I watch five shad get hooked—four of them are landed, and one is lost near the waterline.

I get back on my bike and tuck in to the Canalside Rail Trail, scooting under the Turners Falls Bridge. As I come alongside the canal at the Turners Falls Gatehouse I notice that the canal is nearly quiet—almost like a still pond. This rivals the quietest flows I’ve ever seen passing through this site. FirstLight controls the headgates here–and with so few open, the fish coming up through their power canal can get a better shot at passage.

A cynical person might think they were manipulating the canal to make it look like a good industrial conduit for wild fish—especially during tagged-fish tracking surveys during test flows. One also might think this could be done to punch up fish passage numbers for weekend visitors to the TF Fishway—something that has shown up in fish passage tallies there for years. You’d think fish were only interested in migrating on weekends… Nonetheless, after well over a decade of subsidizing federal Conte Lab employees for fish passage studies and structural changes in the Turners Falls Power Canal, they have yet to succeed in passing more shad upstream than passed this site in the 1980s…

Curiously, when I head all the way downstream along the canal to Cabot Hydro Station, and then out on the deck of the General Pierce Bridge in Montague City—it is absolutely true that the TF Canal appears lake-like in its absence of flow, with just a small bit of whitewater bubbling down from its tailrace. Operators have certainly quieted the whole canal system this day.

In between I make a stop at the Rock Dam Pool, where the 6,300 cfs flows have the rocks roiling with lively current, and the anglers reeling in fish, seemingly at will. For the first time ever here I see two men standing and fishing below the Rock Dam’s fall in a motorized Zodiac type craft. Between the boat, the fishers wading out in the Rock Dam Pool, and the people tossing darts from the ledge over the pool, there are nine anglers fishing the site—eight men and a woman.

And the shad are streaming in. In the fifteen minutes I spend there, five fish are brought to shore. When I ask one guy to pause with his catch for a minute while I shoot a photo, he obliges. “How’s it been for you?” I ask. “I can’t seem to make a mistake today—I’ve had two dozen,” he tells me. “Well, I guess you know what you’re doing.” “Hey, I ran the Turners Falls Dam for 8-1/2 years,” he says. I nod, adding, “I guess then you know exactly when it’s time to come down here for shad.”
P1000394

The other great thing that has happened for anglers with these actual flows in the river: almost nobody is relegated to tossing lines in the stillness of the power canal. The anglers and the fish are all in the river.

Shad anglers help ground-truth test flow impacts at Turners Falls

Posted by on 13 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Conte, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, Holyoke Fish Lift, Northfield Mountain, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab

P1000360 - CopyP1000358 - Copy
The above photos were taken at the Rock Dam Pool today, May 13, 2015. Many shad could be seen with the naked eye fidgeting and milling through the pool. Two anglers were enjoying plucking a few out of the drink. (CLICK ON PHOTO FOR LARGER IMAGE)

Shad anglers help ground-truth test flow impacts at Turners Falls

Federally mandated test flow releases from Turners Falls Dam continued today, with flows reduced to 2,500 CFS (cubic feet per second). That drop, from 4,400 CFS the day prior, produced some interesting results for shad anglers fishing the 2-1/2 mile long Dead Reach below the dam.

At 12:20 p.m. I stopped by the Connecticut River’s Rock Dam Pool, off G Street and “Migratory” Way in Turners, basically just a few hundred yards upstream of the Conte Fish Lab. Curiously, with the tamped-down flows, the Rock Dam Pool was a-bustle with milling shad—perhaps defaulted to this site when flow got cut at the dam. What’s clear is that 2,500 CFS is not a flow level that moves migratory fish upstream in the river through this site toward the TF Dam. When I spoke to three anglers at the base of the dam just 20 minutes later, they said the shad had run out with the decreasing flow.

The river levels today at the Rock Dam though, would at least likely have sustained the presence of the annual spawning gathering of federally endangered shortnose sturgeon in the Rock Dam Pool. They were many levels above the mid-summer conditions created by dam operations at this site on May 3, 2015, which basically scuttled a year’s reproduction there. But hey, who’s enforcing the Endangered Species Act these days??

I did meet a young angler at the Rock Dam who was having a blast pulling in shad. He will graduate Westfield State this coming weekend, and noted that his dad—President Elect for the American Fisheries Society, works in fisheries for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley.
He’d been tossing in shad darts at the Rock Dam Pool for maybe an hour, and had landed and released 7 shad. Big ones, he noted. I explained a bit about the test flows, and we both stood for a bit marveling at the pods of shad turning quick laps around the pool—ten, then a run of a few, then a line of several more—all darting into shadows beneath the high, mid-spring sun.

Hopefully, he’ll carry news to his dad that these fish are here because there’s flow being released to the river. A well-kept secret in these parts is that USGS Conte Lab fisheries biologists who like to get in a little fishing on lunch break always make their way down to the Rock Dam Pool when there’s flow in the Connecticut—cause that’s where the fish want to be.
You won’t find them flicking darts into the power canal just out their front gate.

When I debriefed a trio of 20-somethings fishing below Turners Falls Dam just 20 minutes later, they reported the fishing had turned to dust once the flows were tamped down to 2,500 CFS. One of the guys said that yesterday—Tuesday, all he had to do was just cast and reel in. “I probably caught a hundred.” OK, that’s fish talk, but I’ve seen these guys before. They are shad people. When I told them the Rock Dam was rocking, one said to the woman angler with them, “Wanna go down there?” “Hell yeah!” was the response.

Lastly, I drove Greenfield High Girl’s Softball down to South Hadley later in the afternoon. It’s only a mile or so hike down to South Hadley Falls Dam from there. I took the stroll. There were maybe two dozen anglers strung out along the edge of Slim Shad Point at around 4:30 p.m., but things looked fairly quiet. I didn’t have much time, but I did a little de-briefing to two hefty Latino guys I’ve seen fishing from the Veterans Memorial Bridge before. “Shad are done!” one said of the days fishing. “There’s no water.”

Interesting, since its possible this could be equated to the cut-off of nearly 4,000 CFS up at TF Dam earlier. It’s known to take 6 – 8 hours for the impacts of flow manipulations at Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls Dam to be experienced 36 miles downstream at Holyoke. Thus, these guys may have been experiencing the impacts of test flows, which temporarily quieted the upstream run of fish. Be interesting to try and tease out the correlations. Test flows at Turners will bump up again to 6,300 CFS this Saturday through Monday.

The Greenfield Varsity Girls won at South Hadley.

As of Tuesday, Holyoke had lifted 181,000 shad.

New Comments to FERC, RE: Turners Falls Fisheries Studies

Posted by on 08 Apr 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Cabot Station, Connecticut River, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte, Dr. Castro-Santos, Dr. Haro, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Mr. Colton Bridges, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Revised Study Plan, Secretary Kimberly Bose, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS, Vermont

NOTE: the following comments were submitted to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Secretary Kimberly Bose respecting FirstLight’s withdrawal from its stated position of using video-monitoring equipment at the Turners Falls Dam’s Spillway Ladder to compile study data and information on aggregations of migrating American shad.

This is information that has been the fisheries restoration’s Black Hole these last forty years. It can only be gathered at this site. However, with the withdrawal of these tools, fisheries agencies and the public will be relying on just a few hundred radio-tagged and tracked fish as substitutes for on-site, real time monitoring of aggregations of what are understood to be perhaps hundreds of thousands of migratory shad. (Comments to FERC were slightly abbreviated due space limits in E-filing.)

Karl Meyer, MS
Greenfield, MA 01301 April 8, 2015

Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
888 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20426

Re: P-1889; P-2485

Dear Secretary Bose:

Please accept the following comments in the matter of the hydro-power licensing studies for P-1889, the Turners Falls Project; and P-2485, the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project. These comments focus on changes FirstLight made to the Revised Study Plan. I first aired my objections to these RSP changes at a meeting on March 24, 2015–as a member of the Fisheries and Aquatics Study Team. They highlight a lack of Existing Information and a Need for Additional Information that FirstLight’s RSP revisions will not satisfy.

FirstLight has summarily excised all video monitoring in the vicinity of the Spillway Fishway at the base of Turners Falls Dam—a technique they’d agreed was needed in the initial RSP.

3.3.2 Evaluate Upstream and Downstream Passage of Adult American Shad

Existing Information and Need for Additional Information

Passage through the Turners Falls complex:

Study Goals and Objectives: (18CFR; 5.11(d)(1)

“Evaluate attraction, entrance efficiency and internal efficiency of the Spillway Ladder for shad reaching the dam spillway, under a range of conditions.”

FirstLight stated the following in their initial RSP response: (bolded italics below, mine

“Video monitoring will be used for specific study areas such as the Spillway Fishway. Use of video monitoring of the Spillway fishway will provide data on fishway efficiency; shad attempting to pass would be monitored versus only those shad that have been tagged.”

Task 2: Study Design and Methods:

FirstLight then wholly eliminated that key video information gathering technique that would help inform these studies with aggregate numbers of shad reaching the Spillway Entrance, versus only those few tagged fish approaching and passing the Spillway entrance.

From FirstLight’s March 14, 2015 RSP changes distributed to the Fisheries and Aquatics Study Team:

“The study will monitor shad migration within the study area using a combination of active and passive radio techniques and video surveillance.”

This needed information gathering was eliminated by FirstLight despite their description in the initial RSP that this was a proven and inexpensive technology:

“FirstLight proposes to conduct video monitoring using the Delta System commercial series of underwater video camera and lighting manufactured by Ocean Systems Inc. This system was recommended by A. Haro (Conte Lab) and has proven effective at other facilities. Video data will be recorded on a dedicated video recorder (DVR).”

“Video monitoring of the Spillway would add a modest cost to this study.”

As to why gathering information about aggregations of American shad at the Spillway adjacent to Turners Falls Dam is needed at this time–that need was stated in FirstLight’s initial RSP response as well:

“In general, the numbers of tagged fish passing through the Spillway Fishway were too low for vigorous evaluation (Haro and Castro-Santos 2005).”

Information about aggregations of migratory fish moving upstream to the base of Turners Falls Dam and the Spillway has been paltry to nonexistent these last 40 years. In the last 15 years, Dr. Haro and Dr. Castro-Santos of the USGS Conte Lab have focused nearly all their work in FirstLight’s power canal, while the Connecticut River passage route for these federal trust fish has been almost wholly ignored.

As to the huge gap in the information for American shad aggregations at this site, I herein cite expert testimony delivered before Commission members four decades back:

On August 21, 1975, in hearings before the United States Federal Power Commission in Boston, Mr. Colton Bridges, Deputy Director of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife delivered the following expert testimony on the need for Spillway Fish Passage at the Turners Falls Dam:

To Mr. Bridges: Question: “Would either the Cabot power house fishway or the gatehouse fishway be effective in passing those early arriving shad?”

Answer from Mr. Bridges: “No, because with spill conditions at Turner Falls the major source of attraction water will be coming down river from the Turners Falls Dam and emanating from Cabot Station. Consequently, the conditions that existed at Holyoke with spillway flows limiting fishlift efficiency will prevail at Turners Falls Dam with only a Cabot Station fish passage facility in operation.”

Question: “What, in your opinion, would be the effect of the construction of the proposed fish passage facilities at Turners Falls Dam without the inclusion of the spillway fishway?”

Answer from Mr. Bridges: “Without a spillway fish passage facility, fish approaching Turners Falls during periods of spill will be attracted to the base of the dam and those isolated pools located immediately below it, and be subject to the same conditions that exist below Holyoke without the spillway fish collecting facility, i.e., migration delay and mortality due to lack of flow, increased water temperatures, and decreasing oxygen content.”

Given that, as of this date, FERC is refusing to allow the USFWS any in-situ access for snorkeling to get a general assessment of fish using this passage route to Turners Falls Dam during migration season–and that FERC is further disallowing any seining for fish or shad eggs in this reach due to concerns for endangered shortnose sturgeon, this is the only key place where any new information about Spillway aggregations of shad can be gained. This was stated as a result of FERC internal policy, though NMFS indicated a willingness to consult—and NMFS is the ultimate key-holder in decisions concerning Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.

Hence, denying the gathering of this needed information at the Spillway effectively limits the public’s understanding of what is happening at this site. Though overall successful fish passage through the Spillway Ladder has proven ineffective these past 30 years, it should not limit the Entranceway as the key place to collect long-absent information on aggregating shad.

These are the early arriving fish that have long been known to be the key migrants–most likely to move upstream to Northern Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire spawning sites on the Connecticut. As of this date, 40 years after Deputy Director Colton Bridges testimony, those fish are still not making it past Turners Falls Dam, and we don’t have the information about their numbers and when, where, and in what flow conditions they gather at the Spillway site.

For these reasons I respectfully request that Spillway video monitoring be returned to the Revised Study Plan for this season–to gather the data that cannot be gained simply by monitoring a few hundred radio-tagged fish.

Thank you.

Sincerely,
Karl Meyer, MS, Member, Fisheries and Aquatics Study Team for P-1889; P-2485

Unconscionable: The Fate of the “Canal Nine”

Posted by on 09 Sep 2013 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, Dead Reach, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, FERC license, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, shad, Turners Falls power canal, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab

Note: the following piece appeared this August in Connecticut River Valley publications including: Vermont Digger, www.vtdigger.org; the Daily Hampshire Gazette, www.gazettenet.com, The Montague Reporter and The Shelburne Falls Independent, and at The Recorder www.recorder.com, (edited version).

THE FATE OF THE CANAL NINE

Copyright © 2013, by Karl Meyer     All Rights Reserved

Forty-three years after being chosen as the upstream route for migratory fish, the Turners Falls power canal remains the black hole of fisheries restoration on the Connecticut.  In current filings the US Fish & Wildlife Service is requesting telemetry coverage across the mid-Turners Falls canal to puzzle out the unexplained fate of thousands of fish.  Trout Unlimited wants balloon-tagged shad and more monitors bracketing its powerhouse to study turbine kills and migratory delay.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission wants a hydraulics study of that canal, where all migrants must bypass two turbine stations, then negotiate blistering turbulence just to have a shot at spawning in Vermont and New Hampshire.  On August 14, 2013, canal/dam owners GDF-Suez FirsLight rejected those studies as unnecessary in legal filings for a new 30 – 50 year federal operating license.

While every fish attempting to spawn upstream of Turners Falls dam must enter the canal, scores of questions about their fate there remain unanswered.  Basic questions like, do shad spawn in the canal, have never been studied–even though shad spend an average of 25 days there and just one-fish-in-ten that enters emerges beyond the canal.  US Geological Survey Conte Fish Lab researchers have been paid by Northeast Utilities and FirstLight for studies to improve the fish exit from the canal for the past 15 years.  Yet forty-three years after this system was put in place, it’s still one-fish-in-ten.  And canal spawning, germane to the ecosystem restoration puzzle, has never been studied.

Even more basic to success is this: if only one fish in ten makes it through—what’s the fate of the other “canal-nine”?  But you don’t pose that question if you want to keep being paid to study the public’s fish in the company’s private canal.  You study little sections of the canal–fiddle around near the company’s preferred exits and entrances—make big claims for tiny, discreet successes.  A mountain of data is collected, yet never finalized, published; nor peer reviewed.  After 15 years of study and reengineering, it’s still one-fish-in-ten.  Other agency experts wink in this shared belief: most fish entering that canal don’t survive.  Sliced-up in downstream turbines, they flush directly into the river.

“Unconscionable” is the term Dr. Boyd Kynard uses for plans afoot to move hundreds of thousands of shad into that canal via a new lift (as opposed to tens of thousands today.)   He’s an award-winning fish passage expert who logged over 25 years as a federal fish scientist– helping found the Conte Fish Lab while with the US F&WS.  Kynard believes the ineffective ladder system in place there for decades may have actually saved hundreds of thousands of fish from death in Cabot Station turbines, “The Cabot ladder is so bad most fish never reach the canal where most will exit downstream through deadly station turbines.”

Kynard, a fish behavior specialist who studied shad passage and turbine mortality at Holyoke Dam through the 1980s, believes a new lift below Cabot Station could prove the ecosystem’s next 50-year disaster.  He witnessed massive fish kills in Holyoke’s canals in the early 1980s when, starting in 1976, a new lift passed hundreds of thousands of fish upstream to spawn for the first time in 120 years.  It was hugely successful, but no one foresaw what would happen when adults headed back to sea.  While part of the migrants rode over the dam during high flows, others reencountered the dam-and-canal-system.  Tens of thousands got sucked into turbines at Hadley Falls Station or died in the canal–unable to return safely to the river. A stench of rotting fish hung over that city while dump truck after dump truck hauled tens of thousands of dead shad from the canal to the landfill.  (That condition was eventually remediated when dam owners installed a louver system in the canal to divert down-running shad into a pipe and back to the river, thus bypassing all turbines.)

But whereas Holyoke’s lift allowed shad to first spawn upstream in the river before encountering turbines, at Turners two hundred thousand fish could find themselves in a turbine-filled canal before ever getting a chance to spawn in Vermont, New Hampshire or northern Massachusetts.  And this canal’s Frances-type turbines are far more deadly than Holyoke’s.  Stressed, those newly-lifted shad can encounter two discreet turbine sites before meeting the massive canal turbulence near the dam.

This ecosystem can’t absorb another 40-year failure in the Turners Falls canal.  The USFWS, TU, and the Connecticut River Watershed Council are backing a study–adopted from Kynard’s Holyoke work, which would use low-frequency sound to deflect shad from entering the canal.  If deployed correctly it could send migrating fish straight upriver to a lift at the dam, like the one that’s succeeded at Holyoke for decades.  It’s a simple, inexpensive study–one FirstLight is already seeking to limit to a single year, or exclude altogether.  But it’s FERC who’ll decide by September 13th.  And they have a mandate to protect the public’s fish.

March 1st Deadline: Comments to FERC on Northfield/Turners Falls Hydro Relicensing

Posted by on 25 Feb 2013 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, EPA, ESA, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Rock Dam, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab

Last Call to send comments and study recommendations to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to guide the Connecticut River conditions mandated in the 2018 relicensing of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project and Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project.  The licenses will the river ecosystem for decades to come.

To file any comments on the relicensing of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project and the Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project you will need to register at: www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/efiling.asp

You must include the following project numbers for Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project and Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project respectively, with any comments: P-2485-063, and P-1889-081.

All comments are due before MARCH 1, 2013.  Be sure to include your full mailing address, phone number, and email address in your comments. (I’ve attached my comments, which are now registered with FERC, below.)

Karl Meyer, M.S. Environmental Science

Greenfield, MA, 01301                                                             February 25, 2013

To: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

RE: Comments on FERC Relicensing Projects: No. P- 2485-063 (Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project) and No. P-1889-081 (Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project)

Dear Commissioners,

Please carefully adhere to the standard FERC relicensing processes and deadlines as you relicense these two projects.  Holding public and agency site visits in early October 2012 may have been deemed convenient for circumventing winter weather that might have affected visits, however it placed invested parties in the difficult position of having to view and judge hydro operations and configurations at both facilities without the benefit of knowing what operational changes and information FirstLight Power Resources was including in its PAD.

Further, of the three FERC group tours at Northfield/Turners Falls, only one group, mine, was able to view the area of the By-Pass Reach and the Turners Falls Canal and head gates from the downstream side of the Turners Falls gate house.  This is a critical area to view, and the excuse being given was that there was construction happening on the Turners Falls Bridge.  However, unrestricted access to view these sites was available to any passing citizen just yards away via a bike and walking path, open to the public.  My group only received access because I made a direct request to FirstLight’s John Howard, who was my former boss.

The two other tour groups did not get to see the confused flows created by the 14 head gates at the upstream end of the Turners Falls Canal.  The canal has been a major disappointment as the upstream conduit for all migratory fish these last 34 years.  Those head gates are open at full bore during much of the upstream fish migration season; they should have been a key component of the tour.  Nor did interested parties get to view the exposed rock bed and de-pauperizing flow regimes created by flood gate manipulations at the Turners Falls Dam that renders the By-Pass Reach a non-river.  FERC should place particular emphasis on any studies that redirect upstream migrating fish away from the confused and failed conditions experienced in the Turners Falls Power Canal, and send them directly upstream to a lift at TF Dam.  That configuration has worked quite effectively at Holyoke Dam these last 58 years.

In late January 2013, GDF-Suez FirstLight Power Resource representatives noted at public hearings that it intends to apply to FERC with a Proposed Study Plan to begin its own investigations of flows in the reach below Turners Falls Dam this April 2013, rather than the 2014 and 2015 study seasons noted in the FERC Relicensing Process.  No study in this critical segment of river known as the By-pass Reach should be undertaken without a full vetting of the proposals.  This section of river is critical spawning habitat for the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, also listed as endangered under the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Act.  It is also the age-old upstream route for spawning federal-trust American shad and blueback herring.  It is noteworthy that in their expedited study application that FirstLight cites the area below Cabot Station as a key shortnose sturgeon spawning location, while the critical site for these fish—used for likely thousands of years, is the natural escarpment in the riverbed known as Rock Dam, a half mile upstream of Cabot Station.

In a letter from FERC to Mr. John Howard of FirstLight Power Resources dated March 12, 2010, the Commission noted that FirstLight had failed to comply with Article 34 of the license for the Turners Falls Project, releasing just 120 cubic feet per second to this segment of the river to protect shortnose sturgeon from the effects of low flows.  The minimum requirement is 125 CFS.

With respect to measured, in-depth, long-term investigations on flow and river regulation in this reach I would direct you to the 17 years of research done by Dr. Boyd Kynard and colleagues at the Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center adjacent to this river segment in Turners Falls, MA.  The work was largely conducted via the federal Conte Lab under the US Fish & Wildlife Service and later, under the US Geological Survey, when it took over responsibilities for Conte Lab after 1999.  These investigations were also supplemented by funds, research and personnel from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

This research is documented in: Life History and Behaviour of Connecticut River shortnose and other sturgeons, published in 2102 by the World Sturgeon Conservation Society and produced by Books on Demand, GmbH, Norderstedt, Germany: ISBN 978-3-8448-2801-6.  Copies can be obtained from the North American Sturgeon and Paddlefish Society:

www.nasps-sturgeon.org/#!publications  Chapter 3 concerns the long-term study of flows and river regulation on spawning success of the last 300, spawning-capable, federally endangered shortnose sturgeon in this river system—covering the period of 1993 – 2005.  This is critical, long-term research that includes seven years of findings from the time before Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage and Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project operated as a regulated utility, and the seven years when Northfield’s pumping was unconstrained by regulations and operated to profit from price spikes and drops in the energy spot market using the public’s river.  Deregulation was fully implemented here in 2000 or thereabouts.  All of these issues need careful consideration before sanctioning a rushed study plan in such a critical river reach.

When considering a new license for these facilities, careful consideration of the public’s interest should be made respecting the changes and power generation, flows, and operational practices from the commencement of the current licenses down to the present.  In 2012, Northfield Mountain Station added 40 megawatts of power to its generating facilities through retooling two of its turbines.  This increase nearly equals the total power generated at HG&E’s Holyoke Dam, the next downstream project licensed by FERC.  Two remaining turbines await power up-rates, which is a considerable addition to the generation at this plant, originally proposed and installed at 1,000 megawatts.  Currently, due to mid-license changes, it now produces 1,119 megawatts of power in an unregulated power market. noteworthy and important to be considered in weighing the public’s right to a living ecosystem, upstream fish passage, and protection of endangered species, is that Northfield Mountain’s original license was for a plant used to create “peaking power, and as a reserve unit.”  It can only produce 6-8 hours of stored power before it is spent and needs to purchase replacement power on the open market.  Its stated intention was to peak twice daily in high-demand winter and summer months, and once a day during shoulder months in spring and fall when energy demand is low.  Northfield now generates when demand is present, or—when energy prices will make the greatest profit for investors.  The river and the states have been impoverished by this profound change.

The building of Northfield was based on the availability of current and proposed power from collected regional nuclear sources (New England Power Pool) that included Maine Yankee (closed 1997); Yankee Rowe (closed 1992) Connecticut Yankee’s Haddam Neck (closed 1994), as well as two proposed nuclear plants at Montague, MA (never built.)  Vermont Yankee is currently the only “local” nuclear plant still operating, and its 40 year operating license expired March 21, 2012.  Its continued operation is contingent on findings in the courts.  It is currently operated at a loss by Entergy, and has a failing condenser system which could force its closure.  In short, Northfield is now operated well beyond the bounds of its originally stated purpose.  The public’s river is paying a high price for power, much of it now imported to pump river reserves uphill to Northfield’s reservoir from sources outside the region.  The ecological impacts to fish runs and the damaging flow regimes imperiling endangered species in the river are apparent.

As a facility with great ecological impacts that cannot produce any of its own power–one totally dependent on outside sources for power, one proposal for using this stored power source put before the Federal Power Commission in the 1960s was that Northfield not operate during the spring fish migration due to its impacts on the runs.  It is time to revisit the option of silencing the effects of Northfield Mountain so that towns and cities including Greenfield, Montague, Gill, Turners Falls, and Northfield, MA; and all the towns north to Vernon, Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, VT, and Hinsdale and Walpole, NH receive their share of the river’s ecological bounty.

Northfield does serve a function as an emergency “reserve unit” for ISO New England (Independent Systems Operator) during times of severe heat waves, or high winter demand, to deliver a high volume of power on short notice to accommodate spikes in the power grid.  Northfield could be taken off-line and kept in reserve to be operated by ISO New England solely for that purpose during the low-demand spring energy months when fish are migrating.  This would greatly benefit river ecology, species, and all upstream stakeholders.  New England’s power grid resources are currently rated at 15% above demand.  Removing the damaging effects of these operations on river ecology during critical months is a simple, equitable solution.

Northfield and Turners Falls have greatly profited by incremental power increases and operational changes over the past 34 years, while the public has watched flows, regulation, and conditions in the By-pass Reach wither to a brutal, feast-or-famine regime that denies spawning for endangered fish, and passage for upstream migrants.  This situation has effectively privatized the 2-1/2 miles of river, depriving my town, Greenfield, as well as Gill, of its share of fish and a river.  This de-pauperization has impacted all the towns upstream of Cabot Station and Turners Falls dam into central Vermont and New Hampshire.  None of these municipalities have received compensation, though in many states the loss and damage to these fish populations would be considered “take” under state statutes.  Damage in the By-Pass Reach to the Connecticut River’s last 300, spawning-capable Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon carries a significant federal fine, as well as possible imprisonment.

FirstLight’s new requests for more generation at both licensed sites should be rejected, and the damaging mid-license flow and power increases should be reversed in any new license.  Indeed, since there have now been no less than FIVE different owner/operators of this facility in the last 14 years, it would be prudent to grant only the shortest license possible in order to help track and minimize damage to the ecosystem due to operational/managerial changes, and protect the public’s interest in a living river.

Northfield’s impacts have never been fully measured with respect to flows in the By-pass Reach, but it is clear that fish passage is now at, or below, the paltry levels of the 1980s, and just a fraction of the 40 – 60% passage upstream long-targeted by the US Fish & Wildlife Service of fish that had been passed at the Holyoke Fish Lift.  Regulated, continuously monitored flows should be returned to the By-pass Reach at this time, and continuous monitoring should be included in any new licenses issued.  FirstLight has noted that in-stream data loggers for river levels and flow have been subject to vandalism.  Continuous camera monitoring of river levels and open and closed gate positions at the Turners Falls Dam would go a long way toward insuring compliance with any new license conditions.  This is an inexpensive solution that could easily include a back-up system.

With a federally endangered species present in the By-pass Reach, as well as federal-trust migrating American shad and blueback herring, FERC would do well to consider enforcing regulated flows in this stretch in accordance with law and statutes in the current license.  NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service has had the USGS Conte Lab findings from studies in the By-Pass reach by Kynard et al, in their possession since 2007.  This agency—as well as the MA Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, could intervene at any time.  These impacts are also affecting the success of the federal/state Connecticut River Migratory Fisheries Restoration, begun in 1967, which stipulates that all the states share equally in the bounty of migratory fish—as both a recreational and seafood resource.  In several studies by the Massachusetts Cooperative Fisheries Unit at UMass/Amherst from the 1980s it is noted that blueback herring, (Alosa aestivalis) were noted gathering at the base of Turners Falls Dam, and were also noted spawning in the mouth of the Fall River–just 300 feet downstream of the dam, by then Conte Lab Director Steve Rideout.

Further, in the late 1980s, in another mid-license power up-rate, up to 5,000 CFS was redirected out of the By-pass Reach and into the Turners Falls Power Canal for use by Cabot Station and a refurbished Unit # 1, some 1-1/2 miles upstream of Cabot.  This was undoubtedly another blow to the shortnose sturgeon attempting to spawn at their ancient grounds at the Rock Dam, though sturgeon spawning in the Connecticut here was not confirmed until 1993.

In the PAD, it is noted that FERC had not found any compliance issues during its inspections of these two projects.  However, as well as a failure to release minimum flows for sturgeon in 2009, I would direct you the US Environmental Protection Agency’s August 3, 2010 letter and Administrative Order Docket No. 10-016, sent to Mr. James Ginnetti, FirstLight Vice President, noting violations of the federal Clean Water Act.  FirstLight knowingly dumped up to 45,000 cubic square yards of silt into the Connecticut River below its fouled pumped storage plant in an attempt to clear its tunnels and intake.  This illegal enterprise was undertaken by FirstLight after failing to conduct silt removal in a manner consistent with the “due diligence” stated in its operating license.  This dumping took place throughout upstream fish migration season, May 1, 2010, or thereabouts, and continued until the EPA Cease and Desist Order of August 2010.  At that time, FERC then became involved in this egregious license violation, requesting a full report from Mr. John Howard, Plant Manager, in a FERC letter dated August 10, 2010.

In a subsequent fall meeting with agency and non-profit river interests, a FirstLight representative stated that they did not know how to remove silt from their upper reservoir, and that it had never been done successfully.  That admission came after 40 years of operating their plant.  Hence, the public, and FERC are being asked to grant a new license to operators who have not shown they can successfully maintain their facility without profoundly affecting a navigable four-state waterway and a migratory fish highway.  FirstLight has now asked for deadline relief, and is promising to have a study of siltation completed in 2014.  Perhaps all study decisions should be held in abeyance until that time, 2014—which would comply with FERC Licensing Guidelines.

 

Sincerely,

Karl Meyer

Greenfield, MA

The Connecticut River for the next Half-Century: a federal hydro relicensing process already leaving the public behind.

Posted by on 24 Sep 2012 | Tagged as: Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC license, FirstLight, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, US Geological Survey

Copyright © 2012 by Karl Meyer.  All rights reserved.

The Connecticut River for the next Half-Century: a federal hydro relicensing process already leaving the public behind.

The only public site visits scheduled in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing process for five giant hydro-power facilities and dams operating on the Connecticut River are taking place in less than two weeks.  In Massachusetts few members of the public appear to have been apprized of the opportunity to attend federally-mandated public site tours to GDF-Suez-FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station and their Turners Falls Dam and Canal generating facilities.  A few news items appeared in the local media about the visits, published less than 48 hours before the deadline to sign up for tours.

Thus, few members of the public registered in time to tour the complex of facilities GDF-Suez operates on a seven-mile long stretch of the Connecticut that profoundly hamper upstream migratory fish runs, and directly impact the annual spawning success of the federally endangered Shortnose sturgeon. The shortnose sturgeon’s Connecticut River spawning grounds are on a short stretch riverbed a mile below the Turners Falls Dam, adjacent to the US Geological Survey’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center.

The next chance for the public to visit and judge the impacts these facilities have on New England’s Great River may not come around again for two generations. These site visits are the critical beginnings to a six-year process that will dictate whether or not the Connecticut River is a restored and functioning ecosystem through at least the year 2058.  FERC licenses are issued to corporations for up to 40 years. The Connecticut belongs to the public, but licenses allow the leasing of a certain amount of flow to corporations to produce power, while dictating conditions that will protect the public’s interest in a restored and functioning ecosystem–including migratory and resident fish, and other riverine species and critical habitats.

Today, the Connecticut River ecosystem restoration fails profoundly at approximately river-mile 120, where most of the river’s flow and its upstream migratory fish have been shunted out of the riverbed and into the Turners Falls Power Canal.  Most migrants never emerge upstream of the punishing currents, upwellings, slicing turbines and silt-laden habitats found in the power canal.  The Connecticut River above the Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls hydro facilities has never been restored to anything resembling a functioning ecosystem.

In 1975 hearings before the Federal Power Commission (today’s FERC) that established the fish passage facilities that have failed for decades at Turners Falls, Colton Bridges, then Deputy Director of Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife, appeared as a member of the federal/state Connecticut River Fishery Program (established in 1967, and today known as the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission).  Bridges was asked, on the record, about the specific goals of the program:

“The program was designed to establish a run of a million American shad at the river’s mouth and extend their range to historic spawning and nursery grounds near Bellows Falls, Vermont.”

Thirty-seven years later, after Commissioners from four New England States and federally fisheries directors from what is today’s US Fish and Wildlife chose a complex series of Pacific salmon-based fish ladders and the Turners Falls Power Canal as the primary upstream route for migratory fish on the Connecticut, nothing resembling restored fish runs or an ocean-connected ecosystem exists above Turners Falls.

Simply put, those officials chose wrong—and the hangover has impacted this river for decades.

They get just one chance to do it right this time; for all of us.  But again, their silent stance seems to exclude bringing the public in on the process.  No messages or notices on state and federal public websites were posted about site tours and input.  Little or nothing on non-profit, river group sites, either. Once again it’s: “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of this.”  That’s a pretty dangerous position, considering the track record.  State and federal agencies have failed to demand operational changes that should have provided protection of federal-trust American shad, and federally endangered Shortnose sturgeon all these decades.  They have simply kept mum about their little mistake at Turners Falls back in 1975.  It has served no one well, save the power companies.

Dr. Boyd Kynard, an expert on migratory fish behavior and fish passage at large dams who helped established the federal Conte Fish Lab under the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990, led studies of the federally endangered Shortnose sturgeon in the Connecticut River at Turners Falls for 17 years.  It’s the fish fisheries officials don’t talk about in public.  Dr. Kynard spent over a decade compiling his work and that of nearly a dozen co-authoring scientists into a book entitled Life History and Behavior of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons, published by the World Sturgeon Conservation Society in Germany last February.  Intervention by the US Geological Survey delayed distribution of the book in the US for several months, and it continues to be difficult to purchase.

However, Dr. Kynard, with permission from the World Sturgeon Conservation Society, released a chapter of the book to me for citation while it was “in-press” back in August of 2011.  Since so few members of the public will get a chance to visit these sites, and since the book is currently only easily available through its chief author, Boyd Kynard, (contact Dr. Boyd Kynard at BK Riverfish, LLC, kynard@eco.umass.edu), I’m printing the abstract from the chapter on spawning and the effects of power company regulation of downstream flows at Turners Falls Dam.  The chapter’s science was done at the federal Conte Lab using funds from UMass, along with federal funding from US Fish & Wildlife Service and USGS.  Kynard’s co-author on this chapter is Micah Keiffer.  Note that the “Rock Dam” is not a conventional dam, but an ancient stone formation in the riverbed, creating a natural spawning pool that Shortnose sturgeon have used for centuries.

Abstract: “During 17 years, we studied the spring spawning migration and spawning of adult Shortnose Sturgeon Acipenser brevirostrum in the Connecticut River, Massachusetts.  Increasing day length (13.4−14.2 h), not increasing temperature (7.0–9.7°C) or river flow during 13 April–2 May likely triggered pre-and non-spawning adults to leave wintering areas and migrate.  Females initiated pre-spawning migration later than males, during lower flows and higher water temperatures, a strategy that conserved energy after wintering.  The pre-spawning migration failed one year (2002), an event probably related to reduced energetic resources of wintering fish caused by high temperatures and low flows during the previous summer foraging and wintering periods.  Pre-spawning adults homed each year to the same 1.4-kilometer-long spawning reach at Montague, Massachusetts, where river current likely determined where spawning occurred: either the Cabot Hydroelectric Station tailrace (area, 2.7 ha) or the Rock Dam, a natural mainstem fast run (area, 0.4 ha).  Spawning occurred when three spawning suitability windows were simultaneously open: (1) day length = 13.9−14.9 h (27 April–22 May), (2) mean daily water temperature = 6.5–15.9°C, and (3) mean daily river discharge = 121–901 m3s-1.  Annual spawning periods were short (3–17 d), which may be typical when only a few females are present.  Spawning periodicity was 1–5 years (mean 1.4 years) for males and 2−10 years (mean 4.5 years) for females.  Peaking operations at Cabot Station did not prevent females from spawning in the tailrace, but likely displaced and stranded early life stages.  During 14 years, spawning at Cabot Station succeeded 10 years and failed 4 years (28.6% failure); while spawning at Rock Dam succeeded 3 years and failed 11 years (78.6% failure).  Spawning failures at Rock Dam were due to river regulation.  Females spawned in a wide range of water velocities (0.2−1.3 m/s); however, the flow regimes created by river regulation and peaking operations exceeded even their broad adaptation for acceptable water velocities.”

* It should also be noted here that not a single representative from the National Marine Fisheries Service the agency federally mandated by Congress to protect the shortnose sturgeon, signed up to tour FirstLight’s power facilities.

 

A Failure to Protect

Posted by on 02 Aug 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, Bellows Falls Fishway, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conservation Law Foundation, Conte, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC license, FirstLight, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS

Copyright © 2012, by Karl Meyer      All Rights Reserved

The following essay appeared in July in the Vermont Digger (www.vtdigger.org); the Rutland Herald (www.rutlandherald.com), and other Valley venues.

A Failure to Protect

This Valley lost a lion of environmental defense when former Conservation Law Foundation Attorney and Antioch University Professor Alexandra Dawson of Hadley, MA died last December.  Quietly today, time grows desperately short for the ecosystem’s only federally-endangered migratory fish–the Connecticut River Shortnose sturgeon.  Alive since the dinosaurs, they arrived shortly after the glaciers left.  They are clinging to life by a thread–with perhaps 300 attempting to spawn annually in miserable conditions created in the 2-mile stretch of river below Turners Falls Dam.  NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible for protecting them; NMFS has known fully of those conditions since 2004.

FirstLight-GDF-Suez creates those conditions, right next to the US Fish & Wildlife’s Great Falls Discovery Center.  Yet the public is taught nothing of them.  Abandoned by federal agencies, the Shortnose is one industrial disaster or spill from extinction.  Your grandkids wouldn’t have been interested anyway…

But just in case, describe something that was a cross between a dinosaur, a catfish, and a shark.  At 3 – 4 feet long, Shortnose have bony plates instead of scales, with shark-like tails at one end, and suctioning, toothless mouths below cat-like feelers at the other.  They scarf down freshwater mussels whole; then grind them up in gizzards.  Shortnoses can live over 40 years: one alive today might’ve witnessed Richard Nixon signing the Endangered Species Act in 1973.  They had other priorities though, like survival.  But for how much longer?

Conditions most-imperiling the Shortnose are overwhelmingly the result of FirstLight-GDF-Suez’s floodgate manipulations and punishing water pulses sent to the riverbed and coursing down their two-mile long Turners Falls Power Canal via their dam, and operations at their giant 1,080 megawatt (now 1102 MW) Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station upstream.  Below the dam you won’t find anything like a river.  For a fish its manipulated chaos–a feast or famine flow regime run largely to maximize the day-trader profit margins of today’s deregulated energy spot-market.  And things may have just gotten worse.

FirstLight’s pumping and dam operations are the biggest disruptor to this ecosystem for a 7 mile stretch–affecting migratory fish restoration failures upstream to Bellows Falls, VT, and down to the Sound.  Instead of shad and other migrants moving up natural river habitat to the dam, they are funneled into a deathtrap: the turbine-riddled bottleneck of the Turners Falls Power Canal.  Barely one shad in ten emerges upstream alive–while crowded-in fish turning back out of that canal are diced-up in its blades.  US Conte Fish Lab researchers dubbed last year’s power canal shad passage a “success.”  FirstLight helped fund their study.  The dismal 16,000 shad they tallied mirrored “success” from 1987, a quarter century back.

And, if you are a spawning-age Shortnose wholly-dependent on spring riverbed flows resembling a natural system below that dam: you’re out of luck.  Annually, attempts at spawning fail in an ancient pool near Conte Lab.  Or, as conditions deteriorate, they default downstream to try spawning below the canal’s outflow.  Here again reproductive failure is common.  Dam-deflected surges deluge their gatherings; or flows get cut-off in minutes, causing mating-stage fish to abandon spawning.  Even when eggs get fertilized, embryos get silted-over or washed away by floodgate surges–or left to die on de-pauperized banks when flow is cut.  Most years no young are produced.  That’s extinction’s fast-track.

FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain offers tours of its 2 megawatt solar installation, but none to its reservoir and pumped-storage plant where, during fish migration in 2010, they dumped 45,000 cubic square yards of sludge directly in the river over 92 days.  This winter they quietly added 22 megawatts to those giant turbines: more than half all the power generated by HG&E’s Holyoke Dam.  This occurred despite their failure last July to have an EPA-mandated plan in place to prevent “polluting the navigable waters of the United States” with a mountain of pumped-storage silt.  Where are the public Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hearings on this license change?  Where is the Environmental Impact Assessment for endangered Shortnose sturgeon?

Northfield, dependent on nuclear power to pump its water, opened in 1970.  Its legally-stated purpose was as a “reserve” power source—to operate a few hours mornings and afternoons during peak energy use.  It can generate just 8-1/2 hours; then its reserve is depleted. Originally it was proposed they’d shut during fish migration.  Today, wildly outside its stated intent, those giant pumps are switched on like a coin-op laundry–day, night, with turnaround intervals of as little as 15 minutes.

Time is running out for the Shortnose; corporate fines for harming one start at $200,000. Our region’s electric capacity now exceeds 15% of demand.  Except for emergency power grid situations, why is this plant allowed to cripple an ecosystem?  Alexandra Dawson would surely cheer if her old Conservation Law colleagues sued National Marine Fisheries Service: for failure to protect a New England biological gem.

Environmental journalist Karl Meyer writes about the Connecticut River from Greenfield, MA and holds an MS in Environmental Science from Antioch University.

Its about the River, AND the Fish…

Posted by on 19 Jan 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, ecosystem, federal trust fish, FirstLight, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, river steward, salmon, Salmon eggs, salmon hatchery, sea lamprey, shad, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway, Walpole

© Copyright 2012 by Karl Meyer   All Rights Reserved

The following Opinion piece appeared in publications and media sites in CT, MA, VT, and NH.  It is a reply to writing in support of the status quo on the Connecticut River fisheries restoration, emphasizing extinct salmon.  The writer, Mr. Deen, is a river steward, flyfishing guide, and VT representative.  This piece appeared mainly in a shorter, Letter to the Editor format.  Here it appears in an expanded OpEd, this version from The Vermont Digger.  Find them at www.vtdigger.org. 

                        It’s about the river, AND the fish…

The Connecticut River Watershed Council’s Vermont River Steward David Dean asks the public not to judge the 45 year-old Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s fisheries restoration by numbers of returning fish, while 74 salmon reached the CT’s first dam at Holyoke, MA in 2011.  As someone advocating rededicating funds away from an extinct salmon strain, I found the piece well-intentioned but short on fact.

After decades and hundreds of millions spent on the science, genetics, and hatcheries dedicated to a centuries-extinct, cold-water salmon on the southern-most river it ever briefly colonized, the public has a right to a return on investment in this time of demonstrated climate warming.  I agree that that return should be an improving river ecosystem.  Useless dams should be eliminated; hydro operations damaging rivers and skirting regulations protecting fish should be prosecuted.

But Mr. Deen cites as salmon-program benefits “growing populations of other anadromous fish,” specifically shad and lamprey.  Science is, and should be, about measurable results.  Yet in results coming back from a hatchery program dedicated to elite angling, salmon represented less than three-hundredths of 1% of this year’s fish returns, while devouring 90% of funding for all migrants.  As to the 244,000 American shad and 19,000 sea lamprey he touted as reaching Holyoke–that’s a 66% plunge from the 720,000 shad counted there two decades back; and 19,000 lamprey?—only 4 years have seen lower numbers since tallies began.  Personally, I’d note 138 blueback herring–a might shy of the 410,000 Holyoke counted in 1992.

It is time for an ecosystem restoration.  Turn this upside-down species pyramid back on its base–rededicate funds to bedrock species of this ecosystem.  River groups could contribute greatly by opening public discussion about desperate river conditions just below Turners Falls, the second dam on the CT.  Migratory fish there are funneled into an ecosystem death trap: Turners Falls power canal.  Meanwhile the adjacent Connecticut is strangled in its own bed by pummeling and parching flows–deeply impacted by pumping operations at Northfield Mountain just upstream.

Today, the only shad regularly reaching VT/NH waters are a few hundred sometimes trucked there from Holyoke.  However, in 2010 Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station choked on its own silt.  Its mile-long intake tunnel and turbines became massively clogged.  From May 1st to November, it did not add a single watt of energy to the grid.  Few noticed.  There was no energy interruption—even while Vermont Yankee was down for refueling in early May.

Yet something amazing happened: shad numbers passing Turners Falls skyrocketed over 600% to levels not seen in 15 years.  Without Northfield pumping–and with river levels kept steady and artificially high at TF dam as FirstLight Power tried to conceal a 65,000 ton mountain of silt it was dumping in the river, the miserable conditions in the riverbed below the dam actually improved.  With May and June rains arriving, artificially brimming river levels behind the dam meant more steady flows were released directly downstream to the oft-parched and pummeled “dead reach” of river below the falls.  Shad got their ancient migration route back—swimming upriver, rather than being deflected into the punishing currents and turbines of the Turners Falls power canal.

Even with suspect tallies and FirstLight’s counting equipment inoperable for parts of 37 days, 16,768 shad were counted passing toward VT–the most since 1995.  Vermont salmon expert Jay McMenemy expressed surprise when all eight free-swimming salmon also used the ancient riverbed to shoot directly upstream to the ladder at the dam.  Since 1967 over 11 million shad have passed Holyoke.  All but a whisper of them ever made it to the Green Mountain State, while they once spawned to Bellows Falls and Walpole, NH.  Ironically, federal studies show 17,000 shad is a shadow of the run that should be passing: at least half of all shad passing Holyoke eventually attempt to pass Turners Falls–95% get deflected into the meat-grinder of currents and turbines of the Turners Falls power canal, never to emerge.

The main reason for no Vermont fish runs: no regulated flows in the riverbed; no easy-access fish lift built upstream at TF dam.   The ecosystem dies in the 2 miles of river directly below Turners Falls—due in large part to floodgate manipulations to accommodating Northfield’s pumping.  There is no working fish passage at Turners Falls.  It is legally required and should have been in place over a decade back.

Northfield Mountain is a reserve energy source that can produce a large amount of energy, 1,000 megawatts, in a very short time.  But it can only run for 10 hours, and then its reservoir is depleted.  It is dead in the water.  Owners must then go out on the market and buy electricity to divert the Connecticut’s flows uphill to its 5.6 billion gallon reservoir again.  Then, they sell our river back to us as expensive energy.  Northfield’s efficiency is just 67%.  Add in its profound river impacts and you have to question: Why is no one talking publicly about this ecosystem-killing elephant in the room?

Karl Meyer is an environmental journalist and award-winning non-fiction children’s author who writes frequently about Connecticut River issues from along its shores at Greenfield, MA.

Next Page »